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AP vs. Dual Enrollment—What’s the Difference?

Wyatt Dalton
Wyatt Dalton

August 22, 2019

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dual enrollment or advanced placement?

So you’ve heard that dual enrollment or AP classes might help your high school student get a head start on college. And you know the more college credit they earn in high school, the less expensive and time-consuming college will be overall. But do you know what AP and dual enrollment actually are and how they work? More importantly, do you know which method is better for your student?

Let’s demystify these two options a little to help your students get a head start on college (and maybe make paying for it a little less stressful for you).

AP Classes and Tests

Advanced Placement classes have become fairly common in most public and private high schools. They’re essentially entry-level college courses offered as standardized high school classes. AP is designed to prepare students for college-level work by offering a more accelerated and challenging course of study. Yet despite being more difficult, AP classes aren’t actually as scary as they sound because they simply build on what students are already studying at a high school level.

AP students use their time in the classroom to prepare for the AP exam: a standardized test created and overseen by the College Board that demonstrates a student’s mastery of college-level subjects.

The fact that AP courses and exams are standardized is important. As opposed to regular high school courses, which vary dramatically from teacher to teacher, an AP calculus course is the same for everyone, everywhere, no matter who is teaching. This standardization ensures that every student who passes the AP exam is actually able to do college-level work.

This makes AP similar to the SAT in that colleges can use a student’s scores as a point of reference when deciding whether or not to accept their application. However, there are a couple of major differences: doing well in AP classes results in high school credit, and passing AP exams potentially results in college credit. (The SAT awards neither.)

How do AP Students Earn College Credit?

The most important part of an AP course is the big exam at the end. Doing well in the AP class itself is a good indicator that a student will be awarded college credit, but in order to earn college credit, they have to do well on the exam.

AP exams typically last three hours and happen annually sometime in May. They’re always multi-part: at least one computer-graded multiple-choice section and one human-graded response section, though you’ll sometimes see additional graded sections. A student’s final score is the weighted aggregate of every graded section of the exam placed on a scale from 1 to 5.

These numbers aren’t exactly grades. They’re more like recommendations. A score of 1 means the College Board does not recommend that a university award credit to the student and a score of 5 means the College Board recognizes the student as extremely qualified and recommends that they be awarded credit for their hard work. Typically, scoring 3 or higher is considered a pass and a recommendation for credit.

What are the Benefits of AP?

When universities are considering a student for acceptance, they often look at the most difficult classes listed on their high school transcript. And since AP classes are usually the most difficult classes available, they look really good on that transcript. Even if a student earned a low score on the exam, the simple fact that they took an AP course helps them stand out to admission officers.

Of course, there’s also the possibility of being awarded college credit. The scores needed to earn this credit vary from university to university. However, most universities honor the College Board’s recommendations for awarding credit. Which means that if your student scores a 3 or higher on their AP exam, they’re likely to skip an entry-level class or two.

But even if a student isn’t awarded credit, because AP classes are designed to prepare students for college-level work, they essentially function as training courses for the academic challenges of college.

What Should You Know About AP?

While typical AP classes are only available to students enrolled in public or private high school, (although there are some online options) the AP exam is open to everyone. So if your student is homeschooled or their high school doesn’t offer a particular AP class, they can still take the exam to earn college credit.

Oh, and speaking of college credit—keep in mind, you might not get it.

Even if your student scores a 5 on the exam, which would put you in the top 10% of all test takers nationwide, they’re never guaranteed college credit for AP. Remember, the exam scores are only recommendations that a university award credit. Some universities will only award credit for scores of 4 or 5. Some won’t award credit at all, even if they like seeing AP classes on a student’s transcript.

The only type of credit you’re guaranteed for passing AP classes is high school credit.

On top of that, AP exams aren’t free and can even be a little expensive if you’re on a tight budget. The cheapest exams are $94 a pop. At that price point, AP exams are a steal compared to the regular price of a college class covering the same material. But if you’re thinking about paying for multiple exams on top of what you already pay for your student’s high school education, the costs can add up pretty quick.

The bottom line on AP

  • They look great on college applications
  • AP potentially enables students to earn college credit while still in a high school environment
  • Passing an AP class will always result in high school credit, but there’s no guarantee that passing an AP exam will result in college credit. (The only way to guarantee a student earns both high school and college credit simultaneously is by finding a way to take actual college courses while still in high school.)

Dual Enrollment Courses

Oh, look! A way to take college courses while still in high school!

Dual enrollment courses are pretty straight forward—they’re college classes open to high schoolers which can be listed on both high school and college transcripts. They can be offered at a local high school, but more often they’re available at or through a local community college. Some can even be taken online. And because these are actual college courses, high school students who pass are automatically awarded both high school and college credit.

They’re known as “dual enrollment” because the student is technically enrolled in high school and college at the same time. But if you think your student can simply skip out on high school and go straight to college by taking dual enrollment courses, sorry. There’s a bit more to it than that.

How Does Dual Enrollment Work?

Students can take dual enrollment courses a few different ways: through a program at a local high school, by enrolling directly into community college, or even by taking online college courses like the ones we offer here at Unbound.

But taking a dual enrollment course isn’t just a matter of signing up. Your student has to meet certain requirements first. The standards vary from state to state, but they typically involve being 16 or older, maintaining a 2.5 GPA or higher, and having permission from various counselors, guardians, and principles.

Assuming your student qualifies for and enrolls in a dual enrollment course, that’s it! All they need to do is pass the class to earn both high school and college credit.

What are the Benefits of Dual Enrollment Courses?

It’s not unusual for students who prioritize dual enrollment to earn an associates degree or finish the general education requirements for their bachelor’s degree around the time they graduate from high school. That, combined with the remarkably cheap price tag for dual enrollment courses (think double digits as opposed to triple or quadruple digits) means that these students are able to knock out up to half the cost of their bachelor’s degree.

Dual enrollment courses also give students access to certain resources that they don’t have at a high school. Because they’re actually enrolled in college, dual enrollment students have access to their professor’s office hours, the college library, research databases, and any other resources that a college typically provides.

Then there are the classes themselves. High school doesn’t typically have much to offer: math, science, English, a few fun classes like music or auto shop. But being a college student opens up a much broader array of classes to choose from. Which, in turn, enables students to explore different possible majors (or even careers) while still in high school. If they approach dual enrollment right, students can even skip the typical freshman woes of having no clue what to major in.

What Should You Know About Dual Enrollment?

Like with the AP exam, it’s not guaranteed that dual enrollment courses will count at your student’s chosen 4-year university. Some universities simply might not allow you to transfer in the credits you earn through dual enrollment classes. This can be due to a concern that some dual enrollment classes don’t meet the university’s standard for college-level work. Or because the college that offers the dual enrollment class isn’t properly accredited. Or often because—like a history major taking a high-level cinematography class—the credits earned can’t be applied toward their major.

Do your research to ensure your student is taking dual enrollment courses that will earn transferable credit, or come with a recommendation to grant credit from an organization like ACE. You’ll also want to make sure that they’re earning credits which can actually be applied toward their degree at their target university.

You should also be conscious of the time commitment dual enrollment requires. These are college courses, which means they may come with the typical amount of late nights you expect from college. Although, those late nights are worth it since one semester of a college course is usually the same as taking a full year of a similar course in high school. So taking dual enrollment courses gets a student ahead in both college and high school. But if your student is heavily involved with athletics or other extracurricular activities at a high school, adding dual enrollment might be a strain on their schedule.

The Bottom Line on Dual Enrollment

  • Dual enrollment courses are actual college courses that count toward both high school and college.
  • Passing a dual enrollment class is guaranteed college and high school credit for the student.
  • However, it’s not guaranteed that your student will be able to transfer the college credits they earn to their target 4-year university.

Which is better?

Like everything, AP and dual enrollment each have their own unique pros and cons. To decide which is better for your student, you’ll need to:

Do Your Research

Will the credits transfer? Remember that neither method is guaranteed to net your student college credits at their target university. Between the two, dual enrollment will always result in earning college credit of some type, while AP might not result in college credit at all. Either way, it’s important to look at what type of transfer credits your target college accepts and what AP exam score they require to grant your student credit.

Is it really college-level work? Because AP courses and exams are standardized and overseen by the College Board, universities can trust that students who take AP classes are actually capable of doing college-level work. Meanwhile, some entry-level dual enrollment courses are less challenging than high school courses. So when the time comes to apply for college, listing AP French on your student’s transcripts might make them more attractive than listing French 100 from the local community college.

Set Your Priorities

Which is more important for your student: earning credits as efficiently and as affordably as possible or preparing for the academic rigor of college while potentially earning some credits along the way?

As a general rule, dual enrollment is likely to be the more efficient option for earning college credit. Assuming that you do your research, know exactly what your target university requires for your degree, and find courses that fit those requirements, you won’t find a cheaper or more straightforward way of getting a jump start on college.

But if you’re more concerned with your student looking really good on college applications, AP courses could be the edge they need to get into a competitive university or be awarded scholarships.

Keep in Mind How Your Student Learns

Obviously, the biggest difference between AP and dual enrollment is how they work. If your student doesn’t do well taking big tests like the SAT, then they’ll probably struggle with an AP exam. Those students might be better off earning credit for work they did spread out over an entire semester as opposed to what they complete in a few hours during an all-or-nothing test.

Whatever your student decides to do though, whether AP or dual enrollment, both are fantastic ways to get a head start on college. And whichever method you choose depends on your student—their situation, preferences, and goals.

Looking for flexible, online dual enrollment courses that are guaranteed to transfer to your student’s future degree? At Unbound, that’s exactly what we offer. Unbound is a flexible college program that can help your high schooler get a jumpstart on college without the risk of lost credit! By pairing your student with an Academic Advisor who helps them look ahead—choosing a college and a degree that will help them meet their goals—we can help you choose the best credit for your student’s goals, enabling them to knock a few years (and $’s) off their college degrees. Learn more at GetUnbound.org.

Wyatt Dalton
Wyatt Dalton

Wyatt is an Unbound graduate and a driven entrepreneur. He’s passionate about building businesses and gets annoyed when someone says the only way to be successful is to get a “real” job. When not working on a new business idea or general self-development, Wyatt spends his time pursuing the life moments that make him feel alive.

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